Oxfordshire celebrates a bumper summer for music festivals

PACKING THEM IN: The sun shines at this year’s Cropredy Festival

PACKING THEM IN: The sun shines at this year’s Cropredy Festival

First published in Business The Oxford Times: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Bicester and Banbury. Call me on (01865) 425426

WITH music festivals cropping up all summer long, Oxfordshire seems to have cracked the code of what makes a great one.

Big hitters such as Cropredy and Wilderness saw sell-out crowds through the gates enjoying top acts such as The Wonderstuff and London Grammar, while smaller festivals also enjoyed similar success.

This is despite a proliferation in the number of festivals held across the country, surging from 496 in 2007 to nearly 1,000 in 2012.

So how does each festival attract its audience and make sure it can stay viable?

For veteran festival organisers such as Hugh Phillimore, who started Cornbury 33 years ago, and Joe Heap, who took over the running of Towersey Festival, finding your niche is the key to success.

Mr Phillimore said to gain a core audience you needed to offer something different.

He said he was not worried about the number of festivals taking place nowadays.

“The interesting thing is that they are all so different,” he said.

“But we are all offering something different.

“The poshstock nickname was a huge embarrassment – I nearly died when I read it. But better than Sh*tstock I suppose.

“You need a niche and if you can carve it out and keep the loos and showers clean, you should be ok.”

Mr Heap, director of Towersey Festival, which will celebrate its 50th year this weekend, said: “People who say ‘oh, we have something for everyone’... I think you should know your audience.

“Know what they like, and know what they want. Then they keep coming back. The key thing is to start small, really small, rather than parachute in. And then you have room to grow.”

But some smaller festivals don’t only have to contend with paying punters.

For Derek West, co-organiser of the Witney Music Festival, the weather is his biggest problem.

He said: “Because we are a free festival we never know how many people we will get and there is a big financial risk. We invest about £25,000 for facilities every year and we always aim to break even.

“But we didn’t do that this year. We were a little bit under, and that was because we had bad weather.”

The 64-year-old graphic artist added: “Getting ourselves known is a problem as well. We do quite well with social media but we don’t have the budget of some of the other festivals.”

With councils, red tape, the police and health and safety to contend with, not to mention the unreliable summer weather, not all of them have run smoothly.

The original company behind the Truck festival, created in 1998 by brothers Robin and Joe Bennett, went into administration in 2011 despite the festival being a success with the punters.

The pair managed to keep the festival going with a new management company taking over and 2014 saw 150 bands and artists playing to more than 5,000 people.

And while many will be looking forward to dancing to Fatboy Slim and eating the many delights on offer at this year’s Big Feastival, its co-founder Alex James, the former Blur bassist, has himself had troubles.

In 2011 his Harvest festival, held at his farm, was organised by Big Wheel Promotions but the firm subsequently collapsed with debts of £1m, owing 11 Oxfordshire firms a total of £57,506.34.

This year, the newly-launched Homegrown Music festival was due to take place near Chesterton on August 16 and 17, but had to cancel at the last minute after doubts Cherwell District Council would grant them a licence.

Thames Valley Police objected to the licence application over concerns about potential crime and disorder and public safety.

Organiser Len Readle was forced to refund thousands of tickets which had been sold in advance.

Everyone the Oxford Mail spoke to agreed that with hundreds of festivals taking place all over the UK, the market was nearing “peak festival”.

Mr Phillimore said: “The market [in the UK] is pretty close to saturation, I think.

“But if people are offering something different every time then we will all remain viable.”

‘We’re seen as fantastically uncool’

Hugh Phillimore, below, started Cornbury Festival 33 years ago and describes his creation as an “eclectic and eccentric musical carnival’’.

The Oxford Times:

He said one of the things that had changed the most over the years was trying to attract big name artists to his venue.

With festivals playing every weekend in the UK – having to compete with European festivals – and exclusivity contracts, it is harder than it used to be.

He said: “They [bands] can try to get more money out of you by playing a poker bluff.

“Over time you get better and better at realising it.

“But you have to have something in your pocket in case they call it.

“But I have been doing this for a long time now, so I can pretty much get who I want.”

He said: “We are the most traditional music festival [in Oxfordshire], and we are seen as fantastically uncool.”

‘KEEPING THINGS SMALL IS ADVANTAGEOUS’ WITNEY

Music Festival attracts around 5,000 people and started in 2006.

The Oxford Times:

Co-organiser Derek West, pictured, said keeping it small was actually advantageous.

It was decided to keep the event free of charge and use it to support local bands and artists.

The 64-year-old graphic artist, right, said: “We have a licence for 5,000 people which costs us £100. So we fence off areas and make sure we know exactly how many we have in.

“If we go over that we have to have the next licence up – which is for 10,000 people – but will cost us £1,000.

“Ideally we would like to make money and donate it to charity, but we haven’t yet managed to do so.”

But he did say the festival has no problem attracting local talent.

He added: “It’s nice and it seems to give them a reason to practice so they can play for the community.

“And it is always nice to see them work their way up, starting with us, and then going on to bigger festivals in Oxfordshire.”

MAKING A MARK IN 2014

  • Wood Festival, May 15-17
  • Witney Music Festival, May 26
  • Cornbury, July 4-6
  • Truck, July 18-19
  • Riverside Festival Charlbury, July 26-27
  • Wilderness, August 6-9
  • Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, August 7-9
  • Supernormal, August 8-10
  • Towersey Festival, August 21-25
  • Woodstock Live, August 23-24
  • The Big Feastival, August 29-31
  • Banbury Folk Festival, October 10-12

 

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